What Does Foucault Mean By ‘Discourse’?

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According to Michel Foucault, the term discourse means "an entity of a sequence of signs that they are enouncements". Enouncement, often translated is an abstract matter that enable allows particular repeatable relations to subjects, objects and other enouncements. Therefore, discourse is a collection of relations to objects, subjects and announcements. Foucault uses the concept of discursive formation, which includes regularities that generate discourses to relate his study of quantitative information which include among others, natural history and political economy.

In the traditional sense, discourse has been used to study the relation between language, structure and agency, and the philosophy of science. These traditional studies are conducted in the areas of ethnography, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, literary theory and feminist studies. Based on the given fields of study, the concept of discourse is subjected to discourse (discussion/dialogue). That is, it is subjected to a debate founded on specialized information. In addition, discourse is also seen in multimedia methods of communication which include written, signed and spoken language in contexts ranging from textbooks to instantaneous message conversations to oral history.

In the fields of social sciences and humanities, discourse refers to a recognized method of thinking that can be evidenced by use of language or by social boundaries which define what can be thought in relation to a particular topic. According to Judith Butler, the recognized method of thinking (discourse) can be manifested through "the limits of acceptable speech". In life, it is not possible to avoid discourses as they do affect how we do everything around us. For example, one can use two different discourses when describing

various movements of fighters. They can either be described as freedom fighters or as terrorists. By having different discourses to describe a specific thing or a specific topic, each of the chosen discourses delivers the style, the expression or even the vocabulary required to communicate. Since in most cases discourse is used to define reality itself, it is closely associated with different theories of state and power.  Michel Foucault discusses the concept of discourse from four different perspectives, that is, modernism, structuralism, postmodernism and feminism as discussed below.

According to modernism, Foucault says that modern theorists' focal point was around achieving advancement. They believed that there exist natural and social laws that can be used collectively to generate knowledge and hence a better understanding of the society. In his own view, Foucault argued that most of the modern theorist thought scientifically and hence directly great effort towards development of theories in order to ascertain truth and reality of facts with certainty. Therefore, according to Foucault, most of these theorists just looked at discourse as a way of conversing, which means to them, discourse was functional.  The need to make advancements and/or create new and more perfect words to express new discoveries, areas of interest or understandings is associated with language changes and discourse.

In modernism, discourse and language have been conceptualized as a normal product of common intelligence usage or progress and they have been distanced from ideology and power. Foucault further explains that modernism has given rise to the broad-minded discourses of justice, equality, freedom and rights. However, according to Regnier, this open-minded expression has covered substantive disparity and has failed to give an explanation for the differences.

In structuralism, Foucault refers to structuralist theorists like Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure. These theorists argue that social structures and all human deeds are connected to discourse and language and that they can be identified as systems of interconnected components. This is to mean that single components of a system only become important when thought of in relation to the whole structure. Here, structures are recognized as autonomous, self-transforming and self-sufficient units. It can therefore be said that the significance or the importance of an individual component of a system is determined by the structure. The concept of discourse is an important element in explaining social and cultural analysis because according to the structuralism, it has made an important contribution in helping us understand different social systems and different languages.

During the post modern era, there emerged a contrast in modernism theories that claimed a theoretical approach in explaining the aspects of the society. Postmodernists were concerned with investigating the range of occurrence of individuals and groups. They therefore embarked on examining discourses such as policies, practices, language and text. It is during this time that Foucault generated a concept of discourse early in 1972 in his book titled Archaeology of Knowledge.

According to Iara Lessa in her book Discursive Struggles Within Social Welfare: Restaging Teen Motherhood,  discourse as defined by Foucault is "systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subject and the worlds of which they speak".  Iara continues to say that Foucault's concept of discourse is traced in a broader social process of power and justifying; highlighting the structure of modern truths, how they are sustained and what power associations they carry with them. Later in his theory, Foucault described the concept of discourse as a means through which power relations generate speaking subject matters.

Foucault argued that every human association is a struggle and a negotiation of power since knowledge and power are inter-connected. He further explains that power is always there and has the capability of producing and restraining the truth. Power operates by rules of elimination and therefore it is related to discourse. Therefore, according to Foucault, "...discourse is controlled by objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak". Foucault in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge uses an example of a book to demonstrate how an object is capable of becoming a node with a set of connections. "A book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences'5. This means that a book is a collection of a large, over-arching network of knowledge and information to which it relates.

It is important to differentiate Foucault's use of the concept of discourse with the contemporary use of the term. There are many meanings of the term in the social sciences and none of them can be reduced than the other. To begin with, discourse has been used to examine speech and dialogues to bring out the rules that preside over specific social conditions such as classrooms. Discourse has also been used as an item of common thought about the associations of language to the likely situations of the human subject in language. In relation to Marxist theories, the concept of discourse has been used to lengthen the ideology theory "that part of the ideological instance in which subjects represent the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence in speech or in writing".  Such use of the term is important in explaining the social and cultural analysis as it depicts specific levels of social relations with their particular mechanisms and effects. Michel Pecheux in his language, ideology and semantic works, the concept of discourse, helps to draw a distinction amid diverse sorts of social practices. Note that the above explained usages of the concept of discourse are contemporary and they are therefore different from the category of discursive formation which has been generated by Foucault.

The concept of discourse as explained by Foucault can be said to be important in both social and cultural analysis. As earlier mentioned, Foucault uses discursive formation conception and the regularities that generate discourses to relate his study of large bodies of information which include among others natural history and political economy. The study of natural history is very important in helping people understand about the culture of different societies. In studying natural history, discourse is used to describe specific topics in terms of expression and style and this helps to explain the history of the people and it is in the history where culture analysis can be easily done.

From the social analysis perspective, the concept of discourse as explained by Foucault is also important as he help us to understand the structure within which all the components of a system in which human deeds are made possible. Discourse together with language are connected to all aspects of human deeds and as argued by Foucault and other modern theorists, every human association is a struggle and a negotiation of power since knowledge and power are inter-connected. It is through the use of discourse to bring out this inter-connection of power and knowledge that the social structures of all humans are well understood. Furthermore, Foucault's concept of discourse is said to be revolved around a broader social process of power and justifying; highlighting the structure of modern truths, how they are sustained and what power associations they carry with them. This provides a good basis for social analysis.

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What Does Foucault Mean By ‘Discourse’?

This article was published on 2011/03/23